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NASA Names First Rover to Explore the Surface of Mars

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On the 30th anniversary of robotic exploration of Mars, NASA has selected the name "Sojourner" for the first rover slated to explore the Red Planet. The 25-pound, six-wheeled robotic explorer is now being readied for launch, and will be deployed to roam across an ancient Martian flood plain after the Mars Pathfinder lander touches down on the planet's surface on July 4, 1997. The U.S. spacecraft Mariner 4 initiated humanity's study of the Red Planet 30 years ago today when it flew by Mars at a distance of about 6,000 miles on July 14, 1965, taking the first close-up images of another planet.

The name Sojourner was chosen for the Mars Pathfinder rover after a year-long, worldwide competition in which students up to 18 years old were invited to select a heroine and submit an essay about her historical accomplishments. The students were asked to address in their essays how a planetary rover named for their heroine would translate these accomplishments to the Martian environment.

Initiated in March 1994 by The Planetary Society of Pasadena, CA, in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the contest got under way with an announcement in the January 1995 issue of the National Science Teachers Association's magazine "Science and Children," which is circulated to 20,000 teachers and schools across the nation.

Valerie Ambroise, 12, of Bridgeport, CT, submitted the winning essay about Sojourner Truth, an African-American reformist who lived during the Civil War era. An abolitionist and champion of women's rights, Sojourner Truth, whose legal name was Isabella Van Wagener, made it her mission to "travel up and down the land," advocating the rights of all people to be free and the rights of women to participate fully in society. The name Sojourner was selected because it means "traveler." JPL scientists and engineers working on the Mars Pathfinder project and Planetary Society staff members reviewed the 3,500 total entries received from all over the world, including essays from students living in Canada, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland and Russia. Nearly 1,700 of the essays were submitted by students aged 5 to 18 years old.

The selection of winners from this group by representatives from JPL and NASA Headquarters was based on several factors: the quality and creativity of the essay, taking into consideration the age of each contestant; the appropriateness of the name for a Mars rover; and the knowledge of the heroine and the understanding of the Pathfinder rover's mission conveyed in the essay.

The second place prize winner was Deepti Rohatgi, 18, of Rockville, MD, who proposed naming the rover after Marie Curie, a Polish-born chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the elements radium and polonium. The third place prize went to Adam Sheedy, 16, of Round Rock, TX, who chose the late astronaut Judith Resnik as his namesake for the new rover.

Other popular names included Sacajewea, who explored North America with Lewis and Clark; Amelia Earhart, one of the first female aviators; Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom; Harriet Tubman, a 19th-century African-American writer and political reformist; Greek goddesses Minerva and Atalanta; and Thumbelina, the tiny fairy tale character created by Hans Christian Andersen.

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